Some irresponsible rumors have sprung up recently claiming that I went to Bahrain just so I could use that Milli Vanilli joke.
What do you mean you never heard the rumors, you just assumed that's why I went there? Harrumph!
My extra day in Yemen and not entirely intentional visit to Dubai had both deeply cut into what was already going to be a very short visit to Bahrain, and by the time I got my visa and made my way through immigration I realized I was only going to have about two hours in Bahrain. The stately, turbaned dude at the car rental desk thought this was very strange, but we had a nice conversation regardless. When I asked him if he was from Bahrain, he responded like I had asked him if he was from Earth. Of course. Where else would he be from? When I explained that I was late to pick up my car because I'd been stuck in Yemen, I either gained his respect or fear, I'm not sure which.
The lower-ranked car rental guy who was tasked with getting me into my Kia Rio wasted no time with "whys" and "what in the hells" and instead directly attacked the problem of my 2-hour Bahrain dilemma. What to see when you only have the runtime of Spanglish to experience an entire country?
Thankfully, The Kingdom of Bahrain was appropriately sized to my visit. The entire country is just a small archipelago of islands floating in the Persian Gulf, between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. I was on 233 square mile Bahrain Island, where all the action and nearly all the people were. The island was only 11 miles wide, so it's not like I could mess this up too badly.
"Just don't get stuck in the rush hour traffic coming back and miss your flight," my new car rental friend admonished.
Okay so maybe it would be possible to mess this up badly.
He thought for a long minute and had the answer.
"If I were you, I would drive over to the Grand Mosque, and then the Bahrain National Museum. You can do all of this if you are quick."
And so I was off like a shot, waving goodbye to the painted airport camel and weaving into the traffic of Manama.
I unsurprisingly didn't get to know many Bahrainis in my limited time there, but I can tell you they drive like a-holes. That's okay, some of the best people I know drive like a-holes. It's not a fatal flaw.
Navigating across the city of Manama was a pretty simple affair and before long I was at the Al Fateh Grand Mosque. The mosque itself was closed, because it was Friday or Valentine's Day or the moon was in Taurus or something, but it was beautiful to view from the outside and I had the whole area all to myself.
This made me feel slightly like I was trespassing, but I got over this quickly and was soon sticking my face in windows to see what was going on inside the empty mosque.
The setting sun made for some challenging photography angles, but seeing the sunset blazing through the windows on the far side of the mosque more than made up for this.
Likewise, the western side of the mosque was on fire with great light, broken up by the long shadows of palm trees.
The other sides of the mosque had to make do with cool antique light poles.
The cultural center next door shared similar pretty design elements, even with a fence and signs in the way.
Returning to my car, I was pleasantly surprised to find it still there, as I'd parked kind of like an a-hole in a random spot on the street. Thankfully the local a-hole population apparently respected this act of solidarity.
On to the museum!
Huge, arty driftwood? Check!
The dude at the front desk was mellow and forgiving about my unfamiliarity with Bahraini dinar denominations and lack of change. Inside, an open entry hall showed off some pretty cool local art.
No museum worth a damn in the Middle East is lacking a display of intricate doors, just to make all your doors at home seem boring.
Likewise, the prerequisite swanky-ass Qurans that every museum worth its salt simply must have.
Ritzy cars from the British Oil era? Yep!
I think more cars today should just have a trunk strapped on the back, for your extra stuff. It occurred to me for the first time, looking at this car, that this may very well be where our term "trunk" originally came from, having evolved from an actual trunk to a storage compartment integrated into the car itself.
Bahrain's history is an interesting mix of elements. In ancient times, an ox god named Awal was worshiped here. I was surprised to find art in the museum depicting Enki, the Sumerian god of water, who is believed by many New-Age folks today to have been an Anunnaki extra-terrestrial who heavily influenced and manipulated ancient civilizations on Earth, his wrathful exploits having been recorded as the acts of "god" in the Old Testament of the Bible.
Bahrain was part of a huge ancient trading center known as Dilmun, then passed through Assyrian and Babylonian rule before converting to Islam in the time of Muhammed. The island was invaded more times than I can fit mention of here, before becoming a British protectorate in the late 1800s. The country rapidly modernized after the discovery of oil in the 1930s, what seems like a common theme in the region. Bahraini oil refineries were bombed by Italy in WWII, and after the war increasing Anti-British sentiment resulted in numerous riots and the eventual independence of Bahrain in 1971.
Before the discovery of oil, Bahrain was traditionally known for producing the best pearls in the world, and a cute little diorama demonstrated traditional pearl-fishing techniques, complete with little dudes underwater contending with little sharks.
My favorite parts of the museum though were the exhibits that demonstrated what traditional Bahraini tribal life had been like before modern times. Mannequin displays similar to the ones I would see the next day in Kuwait brought much of that history to life.
I was most fascinated by the displays describing traditional Bahraini customs regarding childhood.
I think receiving your hair's weight in gold would be a strong motivation for Bahraini kids to never wash their hair.
I love this one. Sorry tooth fairy, but you just can't compete with throwing your baby teeth into the goddamned sun.
Other displays showed how in the traditional architecture, wind towers stretching above homes created air circulation and a kind of pre-modern air conditioning that kept homes cool in the summer. Another exhibit finally answered my question of how they decide it's time for afternoon prayers in the Muslim world.
I'm not sure how you set a shadow-length alarm, but I like that there's still some mystery to the whole process for me.
Wow, that was cool. OH MY GOD I have to get back to the airport! My car rental friend is going to be so disappointed if I miss my flight. Thankfully traffic was forgiving and I made quick time back to the airport, feeling slightly guilty that I hadn't had time to gas up the car before returning it. But I'd also only driven about ten miles. Hopefully that all comes out in the karmic wash.
In retrospect I think I was the only white person on my flight out of Manama, but I'd kind of stopped noticing this kind of thing since I was also the only white person on my flight into Manama, or in Bahrain itself as far as I saw. After leaving Egypt early that morning, and spending the day in Dubai and then Bahrain, I was about to land in Kuwait, my fourth country of the day. My last sleep had been in a rustic Yemeni hotel on Socotra Island, and my next would be in a tent on a rooftop in Kuwait City. This somehow seems even crazier to me now than it did then.